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Monday, April 23 Opinion

Woog's World: Two Westport teachers of a (very rare) kind

After nearly five decades in education, Frank Corbo is retiring.

The longtime classroom teacher, administrator and nationally known math educator points to many achievements. He has brought Singaport math to Westport, spurred high enrollment in multivariable calculus, and introduced differential equations as a high school course.

Corbo pushed limits, motivated students and inspired instructors. He also played a key role in hiring outstanding female teachers, showing -- by example, and long before it was "popular" -- that girls can appreciate, enjoy and excel at math as well as boys.

Corbo's love for his field is apparent. He describes math as "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 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."

Corbo loves his students, too. "You must find something you can genuinely like in each one, no matter how challenging he or she may be," he says. "Unless you can connect with your students as human beings, as individuals, and find their strengths, you can never reach them."

But Corbo is just as passionate about teaching. And he is appalled that the profession he loves -- one that combines passion, humanity, empathy, insight, flexibility, psychology, even whimsy -- is increasingly reduced to, well, numbers.

"The hierarchical workforce paradigm is different from the commonly accepted one," Corbo says. "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 by 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."

Corbo elaborates: "The fact that you ask a teacher to teach one more class does not mean that that teacher is more productive. In fact, the teacher will probably be less productive. He or she has less time to plan each class, less time to meet with each student individually, more students to worry about overall, more tests and papers to grade, less time to plan and prepare -- you get the idea."

Corbo is not through. "In business, you can measure productivity by units produced, or money made -- metrics like that. But education is not business. The product is not something tangible. The product is people. And you can't measure people -- their knowledge, their insights, their aha moments -- like you can something that rolls off the production line."

Particularly if those people are children or teenagers. As the end of the school year fades in the rear view mirror -- and long before a new budget season heats up -- we should remember Corbo's key concepts: "Education is not business." (In fact, it's far more important than that.) "The product is people."

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Meanwhile, Corbo is not the only member of his family to retire. His wife, Lis Comm, leaves too, after 44 years as a teacher, administrator and -- most recently -- Westport's townwide director of secondary education.

She, too, leaves with great fondness and tremendous respect for our school system: its administrators, teachers and students. She too has words of wisdom. She cites Elliot Eisner, professor emeritus of art and education at Stanford University. Eisner, Comm says, explains why she has felt "such joy" working in Westport since 1970.

Eisner says there are six "satisfactions in teaching." The first involves the opportunity to introduce students to ideas "they can chew on for the rest of their lives. Great teaching traffics in enduring puzzlements and persistent dilemmas." They let imagination take wing. Unfortunately, he says, "imagination is the neglected stepchild of American education."

The second satisfaction is that teaching is a way to "ensure your own immortality." It's a private immortality -- but "the images of teachers past populate our minds and memories. ... Their lives live in yours, and your life lives in theirs."

The third satisfaction is the chance to improvise (albeit within constraints). The fourth is that teaching provides "ample opportunities for both artistry and for memorable forms of aesthetic experience."

Teaching also allows the contagious sharing of the deep affection for whatever one teaches.

Finally, there is the surprise discovery that whatever one said in class years ago has made a difference in someone's life -- perhaps even "rescuing a child from despair, restoring a sense of hope, soothing a discomfort."

For nearly a century (combined), Frank Corbo and Lis Comm have done all that, and more. They've embraced their students, their colleagues, their school system, and the art of education.

It's hard to imagine better careers than that.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.