A Discussion with Amy Perruso

I wouldn’t say this lightly about anyone, but Amy Perruso is the definition of a super teacher. She is originally from Southern California and is a graduate of USC. She is Social Studies department head at Mililani High School and has a Ph.D. in Political Science. She was recently elected as the Treasurer of the Hawai’i State Teachers Association (HSTA) on a progressive slate that is seen as a kind of upheaval that could lead to radical changes in the direction of the union. She is an award-winning teacher, recipient of awards from Walmart and the Hawai’i Council for Humanities History Teacher of the Year in 2012. Her students perform at a national level in History Day, Mock Trial and We the People, all of which are social studies civics and history competitions. She has taught, among other things, AP US History, Modern Hawaiian History and Participation in Democracy. I chatted with her (literally) on some big topics.

‘Umi Perkins: What is your philosophy of education?

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Amy Perruso: Education should be designed to meet the actual desires, ends and purposes of young people, not those of bureaucratic institutions, corporations, or the adults who are trying to justify their own existence within these institutions. I have a lot more to say, but I have been thinking about that principle a lot in the last few days.
UP: What is your view on the balance or tension between the need to train employees and educate citizens?
AP: There is no need for ‘balance,’ in my view. Neither is a legitimate purpose, unless the citizenship is critical of the nation-state.
UP: I’ve been watching a show called Creating Freedom, which is very critical of most institutions and the tacit submission of people who don’t even know they are conforming to repressive systems – this includes schools. Are you in the business of creating freedom, and if so how is it done in the context of a bureaucracy like DOE?
AP: Hm, I’d like to be, and maybe on some days I succeed on creating pockets, but it’s fairly shallow and superficial. I’m reading Jay Gillen’s Educating for Insurgency, and he would say that he students with whom I work, the honors and AP students, have already internalized the norms and socializing objectives of our institutions, so that our current social structure has become the inner voice or conscience of my students. To the extent that they start to feel conflicted, that is the extent to which I think learning is happening and the moment at which idea of ‘freedom’ can enter the conversation.
UP: What’s the plan for HSTA?
AP: My plan or the HSTA’s plan for HSTA?
UP: The new leadership.

AP: Shift from business model to organizing model, and start fighting for the schools our children deserve.

UP: Can you reveal any details about how that’s done?
AP: We’ve been learning from other teacher unions across the country doing similar work. There are incredible teacher- activists, some of the most intelligent and committed people I’ve ever met, fighting education deform in such courageous and inspiring ways.,.. You should meet them, Umi:)
UP: It’s very overwhelming.

AP: Yes:)

 But you have to start somewhere:)
UP: So you’re not just a teacher-activist, I see you as a teacher-scholar. How do you balance the two, or do they dovetail together?
AP: I don’t think you can be thoughtful about politics, teacher politics, unless you educate yourself against the grain of a the dominant educational ideology. We’re just lucky that other teachers are writing texts in the world for us to read:)
UP: You’re referring to Keanu Sai I presume? [smile emoticon]
AP: Among others:) Yourself included- your stuff often makes me rethink.
UP: I’m thinking myself now of your phrase “against the grain.” That is difficult. It requires one to push against the boundaries and perhaps endanger our own success in the system which reward us. Or punishes us. I find that when it’s you against the system, the system usually wins.
It just has so much inertia and resources available to keep itself going.
You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve heard.
I’m seeing a quote right now from Frank Zappa: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
AP: Yes. But when I am crippled and bedridden, will I be more proud of my Walmart award or my work with teacher activists on opt out? The latter, I think, although the former made what I do with the latter ‘matter more’ to other people.
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