Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tom Barclay: A Tribute to a Great Teacher

Tom Barclay with Cindy Mershon
One of the finest educators I have ever known is retiring this month. I had the pleasure of working closely with Tom Barclay for the last 12  years of my career and I have been fortunate to call him a friend for nearly 25 years. I met Tom through my wife Cindy Mershon, who was Tom's colleague and close friend for many years.

This post is for the many friends and colleagues of Tom's who were not able to attend Tom's retirement party, but it is also for all of us in education who have known a great teacher. We need to celebrate these folks in this time of teacher bashing and evaluating teachers by labeling them with numbers. (One of Tom's teacher friends at the party shared that she was a 3.65!)

Cindy and I were pleased to be asked to speak at Tom's retirement party this past week. In her talk, I believe Cindy captured the essence of Tom as teacher and person.

One of the things I value most about Tom, and what I believe makes him most appealing to people and most successful in his life and his career, is his ability to be a good listener.  Nobody does it better.  My conversations with Tom have informed and improved my thinking and my work, have soothed my concerns and supported by ideas, and have generally made me know someone cares about what I think and who I am.  I have watched Tom extend this kind of caring – being a good listener IS caring – to many people, and marvel at his ability to be generous and genuine with his time and himself.

When I think of Tom, I think of what Henry James, the novelist, once wrote: “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”  Tom is the kindest human being I know.  I have seen his kindness in his role as a teacher, as a principal, as a supervisor, and as a central office administrator.  His kindness is a large part of what makes him so good at his job, what makes him so valuable as a colleague, and what makes him so treasured as a friend.  His persistent courtesy, the philosophy that informs his work and his life, and the respect he extends to children and adults alike are grounded in the kindness that informs all he does, all he thinks, and all he believes.  Unlike my flight home from Miami last night, no turbulence interferes with or disturbs Tom’s approach to interacting with the rest of the world.  Kindness guides him, and kindness wins out every time.

And here is what I had to say. The humor is specific perhaps to Tom and those who knew him. The sentiment, however, might apply to a great teacher you know.

Tom Barclay is the most irritating person I have ever met. I realized this when Tom first joined our Curriculum and Instruction team 14 years ago. At the time I thought I was pretty smart; Tom was smarter. I thought I was well-read. Tom was better read. Worst of all, I thought I was funny; Tom was funnier.

Infuriatingly, Tom was also wise. Whenever Erin or Christine or I would come up with our “next great idea”, Tom would pause and say, “Well, let’s think about this a bit. What is the evidence that this will work, that the teachers will want to do it, that it is good for kids.” Then Chris Manno would agree with him and say, “Yes. let’s take our time on this and see if it will work.” See what I mean. Infuriating.

As you know, Tom has his quirks. In fact the only really surprising thing about this evening is that Tom got here on time. Tom lives in a different time dimension than the rest of is. Here is an example. On the rare occasion when we would find ourselves with a half hour to go to lunch, I would go into Tom’s office and say, “Hey, Tom, want to go grab some lunch?” “Sure”, he would say, “let’s go.” At that, I would be running out the door, jumping into my car and starting the engine. I would then look around, no Tom. I would wait a few minutes, no Tom. I would pull the car around to the front, no Tom. I would go back inside to Tom’s office, to see Tom calmly arranging papers on his desk. He would look up at my quizzical expression and say, “Well, I can’t just leave my desk like this.”

For quicker lunches, Tom had several cans of Progresso Soup in his closet – arranged in alphabetical order: Chicken Noodle, Minestrone, Mushroom, Tomato.

Whenever we did go somewhere together, I would drive. Tom is a very law abiding driver. He is the only driver I know who stops to read the Yield sign. His car’s transmission has only two speeds – slow and slower.

And then, of course, Tom is, in the Seinfeld parlance a “low talker.” Tom would make many of his most important comments in a voice so low that our conversations sounded like this. “Well Russ, as you know we cannot just run willy nilly into the breach…” Punctuated by me saying, “Huh?” I cannot tell you how many times Tom would speak at a meeting and everyone would lean forward, nearly falling out of their chairs, trying to catch a few of the words he was saying. This was invariably followed by Gail Palumbo saying something that blew us back in our chairs in the other direction. Our meetings were a constant lean forward, get blown back.

Despite his quirks and my jealousy, Tom became, after Cindy, my closest friend in education. The absolute best part of my final tumultuous years here at Montgomery, were my 5 PM meetings with Tom. After many a difficult day, I would walk into Tom’s office where we would laugh a lot, cry a little and solve the problems (at least theoretically) of the educational world. Sometimes Earl would join us, sometimes Erin or Gail or Adam, but often it was just Tom and me. With Tom’s total lack of sense of time, these meetings often lasted well past seven, at which time I would leave and Tom would start to straighten his desk. I would call Cindy to apologize for being late and she would say, “I know you walked into Tom’s office at 5…”

Tom’s first job in Montgomery was Director of Social Studies, World Languages and Visual and Performing Arts, K-12. Talk about “Waiting for Superman.” When Chris Manno, Erin, Christine, Gail and I wrote the job description for that new position in our office, I knew there was only one person in the country who could fill that job well. The job demanded a true Renaissance man. It demanded Tom Barclay. Tom had taught social studies and World Language at the high school level, he had been a masterful fifth grade teacher, he had been an organizer of professional development, he was fluent in Spanish, but most of all he was the finest educator I knew. Our team became infinitely better the moment he joined it.

More than any other educator I have worked with, Tom truly cared about people. Tom could spot the weaknesses in some teachers, but he could also recognize, and celebrate their strengths. Tom loved to talk about his students, past and present, to celebrate their achievements and smile at their sometimes truly unusual behavior. Tom’s stories of his students are among my most treasured memories.

Because Tom is indeed a renaissance man and because poetry is a central part of both our lives, I would like to read a poem by Tom’s favorite poet, Pablo Neruda. And I should caution, it loses something in the English translation, but Tom, of course, can read it to you in the original Spanish.

Don't go far off, not even for a day, because -- 
because -- I don't know how to say it: a day is long 
and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station 
when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep. 

Don't leave me, even for an hour, because 
then the little drops of anguish will all run together, 
the smoke that roams looking for a home will drift 
into me, choking my lost heart. 

Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach; 
may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance. 
Don't leave me for a second, my dearest, 

because in that moment you'll have gone so far 
I'll wander mazily over all the earth, asking, 
Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?

Tom Barclay. Great friend, great educator, great man. Wonderful education in Montgomery will continue in Tom’s absence. Tom’s office will be filled, but Tom will never be replaced. While living and learning will go on, that living and learning will be a little less rich without Tom’s gently insightful guiding hand. I am sure many of us wish to say to Tom, “Don’t go far off.”

And so, with so many great teachers going "far off" in this tumultuous time, don't forget to take time to celebrate their contributions to children and the profession. Tom would like that.