A Grateful Chameleon:
Thanking Perry Degener for 20 Years of Humble Mimicry
Middle School history and English teacher Perry Degener is retiring from teaching after 20 years of service to GDS. Over the course of these two decades, he has also taught High School English, coached wrestling, coached Quiz Bowl (“a true delight!), sponsored an Ultimate Frisbee club, and chaired the Middle School history department. Newly inducted into the 20+ Club of GDS faculty and staff, Perry joins a prodigious lineage of energetic, compassionate, and expert current and former educators at GDS. Naming his peers is meaningful because what defines Perry as an educator is based on qualities he has admired in colleagues from over the years, which he developed to be uniquely his own.
Perry came to GDS from the Greenhill School, where he first cut his teeth “stealing good teaching ideas from other people,” he said. Perhaps one of the sincerest forms of admiration between educators is borrowing what works well, and Perry is skilled in that approach.
Perry began at GDS on September 11, 2001, and despite the traumatic start, he soon realized he had found himself in a community of caring, devoted teachers who made him feel at home. These new colleagues also inspired him as an educator, and in their company, he discovered new tricks to add to his toolkit. “I wanted to be like a chameleon, as I always have,” Perry said as he described some of the GDS greats whose methods he worked to emulate.
He has a strong recollection of meeting former High School assistant principal Tom Yoder at the entrance to the High School when he first arrived. Perry observed the watchfulness as well as the casual, self-effacing manner with which Tom carried himself when interacting with students. Many a GDS community member has seen Perry standing or strolling outside his classroom door at the old MacArthur Boulevard campus, connecting with students and colleagues as they passed, “pretending to be Tom Yoder.”
Then there is the trio of young male teachers—former math teacher Coy Dailey, former English teacher Charles Edwards, and science teacher Michael Desautels—whom he felt were cool and confident. Perry nicknamed them “the plastics posse” after the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy. He began to analyze Coy’s charisma and his use of magical props—though never adopting Coy’s lucky Dallas Cowboys helmet—to foster engagement. Michael and Charles offered something quieter that Perry noted to develop in himself: depths of attentiveness to the needs of students. Middle School assistant principal Mayra Diaz, too, offered an important complement to the trio with her quiet assurance and dedication to the daily lived experiences of middle schoolers.
Despite Perry’s painting himself the borrower, others have looked to him as the model. “No one is as dedicated and giving of their time as Perry,” Michael said. “He is a true role model for students and teachers alike. He would literally bend over backward if he thought it would help a student understand better. Before the pandemic, Perry met with kids before and after school, printed outlines of his notes for students to annotate, and connected with students outside of the classroom as their wrestling coach or through Quiz Bowl. As we've had to adapt this year, Perry has too. One day, during virtual learning, Perry was in the building early, decorating chairs and portable whiteboards with student names and shirts to look like soldiers fighting in the Revolutionary War. The commons area on the fourth floor looked like a life-sized chessboard. Later, he brought the students onto Zoom and immersed them in this experience, because he knew it would help the students connect with the material. That's the kind of teacher Perry is: always willing to put our students first.”
Other colleagues have expressed gratitude for the quality of Perry’s presence in the Middle School as well as the extraordinary lengths he has gone to for teachers and students. Middle School history department chair Kate Maloney said, “Dedication, passion, and empathy are just a few of the indispensable gifts Perry has shared so willingly with the GDS community. He has used his genuine talent for listening—deeply and actively—to students and colleagues to forge strong relationships. Perry has used these connections to advocate fiercely for his students and uplift and celebrate his colleagues. He has been everyone's greatest supporter. Quick to cover a lesson or offer extra help outside of the classroom, Perry has always gone the extra mile to sustain and invest in those around him. His joy and passion for his work has been palpable: whistling as he moves into his classroom, with a bounce in his step. Perry has been the definition of someone who puts others before himself, with great success. We have all been better for it.”
Some of what Perry describes as his “attention surplus” has given him the ability to hone in on the good teaching practices going on around him in his GDS environment. He blends what he observes in others into a form that works for him. Perhaps the most impactful models, he said, were former history and English teacher Kathy Shollenberger and former Middle School principal Barbara Bitner. From them, Perry learned to think always about the student's vantage point and, especially for the middle school-aged child, the kind of guiding influence required. Perry applied the care and perspective-taking he learned from Kathy and High School English teacher John Burghardt, whom Perry observed, on occasion, diving deeply into an unfathomable student essay. Surfacing later, John might declare, “Ah, this is a homily!” and then proceed to guide the student’s revisions around that ambitious framework.
These teachers intuitively knew how to do this, Perry would say, but he claims he had to work at it. Yet, even as Perry felt himself blending himself into the decades of brilliant teaching he’d observed like a grateful chameleon, Perry’s teaching has always been his own. One would be hard pressed to find a teacher as excited as Perry about each learning opportunity in the history classroom, on the wrestling mat, or even while traversing the long hallways of 4530 MacArthur Boulevard. Even now, as he feels the obligation to step away to care for his ailing mother, he can’t stop thinking about lessons he would love to teach.
“I want to teach Caste,” he said, of Isabel Wilkerson’s book on disenfranchised groups. “As I read it, I kept thinking, ‘Oh I could use this!’ Then I’d remember, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be teaching.’ Now I’m reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer and the connections to Faulkner—there’s just so much I could bring into our history and English classes, where we are reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains. And I have some years left in me to explore Boxer from Animal Farm. All that will be so hard to let go.”
“It’s been a blessing to be a part of a place where the students are invariably scholars already [in Middle School],” Perry said. “GDS is a school that truly values the power of collaboration within and beyond the community.” Perry pointed to the great guests he’s had the privilege of hosting in history classes and the wrestling room, including former speech writer for Hubert Humphrey Marty Nemirow and Georgetown University wrestlers, respectively. “It’s a school where unusual connections are welcomed.”
In Perry’s mind, nothing can match the daily fascination he experiences teaching and learning in Middle School. “There is nothing like teaching—no job more interesting than teaching,” Perry said. “Catching students in Middle School, at that point when they are really beginning to connect things—it’s a thrill. You have students who are different in each class, new content every class, and you can always apply something you explored during the previous week, something you are reading, or something that fascinates you or the kids. Everything I read and experience is possible grist for class. That’s what I’m really going to miss. I won’t have the forum to explore these things with students.”
“I will really miss Perry,” Michael said, citing “his kindness, unflappable patience, and [being one] who always thinks of others before himself. I hope in retirement, he can enjoy his time off and reflect on the contributions he made to countless young lives, not just in terms of academics but also in the way he exemplifies how we should all strive to be—honest and kind.”
As grateful as Perry has been for the many educators who preceded him and who inspired his teaching, many more will follow in his footsteps, echoing his enthusiasm, his boundless curiosity, and his enduring commitment to each student who set foot in the hallways of GDS.
“Best of luck, Perry,” Michael said. “You will be missed.”