Paul Freeman is becoming a fixture at Glenwood Springs High School.
He’s serving his ninth year as principal and was vice principal for two years before that. His son and daughter, both of whom attend GSHS, have lost their accents, but you can tell from Freeman’s that he’s no Colorado native.
“Like so many Irishman, I was eventually destined to become an American one day,” Freeman observed.
He was hooked after visiting the valley on vacation. He and his wife were living abroad in Malaysia, and when they decided to purchase land and build a house here, the time and travel distance made it nearly impossible to line up a job in advance.
Freeman, who had 20 years of education experience in Britain, landed a position at Basalt Elementary in late fall 2001.
It was an adjustment. On trips back to the isles, Freeman’s British colleagues often ask him how different education in the states is. His stock answer: “about 20 percent.”
For one, there’s a difference in age range. High schools in the U.K. cover students from 11 to 18 years old. The line between senior and junior high is nonexistent, and many educators across the pond are a bit taken aback by the idea of teaching a range of only four years.
There’s also the matter of sports.
“The importance attached to athletics was astonishing,” Freeman recalled.
He reflected that the U.K. has a high density of professional sports teams, so high school athletics are less central to small town identity than in rural America.
“I would have loved to have gone to school in the U.S., because sport was my main thing, really.”
Freeman also observed that college admission in Britain is determined largely by testing.
“No one is interested in the GPA. That’s just a collective work of fiction,” he explained.
Consequently, students often apply their greatest effort their last year in high school — a stark contrast to the American syndrome of decreased drive known as “senioritis.”
“I don’t know whether it’s treatable under the Affordable Care Act,” Freeman quipped.
Perhaps the biggest difference, Freeman says, is the lack of uniform funding. According to Freeman, education funds are distributed equally in the U.K., regardless of the wealth of a given community. The U.S., by contrast, sees tremendous variation based on state and districts.
“If this school was funded at the same rate as Massachusetts, we would have an additional $5 million,” Freeman observed.
He added that the gap would be more without the valley’s mill levy override.
“That’s been a life saver,” he said. “We would have had to lose a lot of teachers.”
Despite that, Freeman says he likes the American can-do outlook.
“I think Americans expect to win. They expect to have successful careers. The power of expectations is well understood. That kind of attitude takes you further,” he said.
It seems to be infectious. Although he disagrees with the old adage that money can’t fix problems, he’s not going to let funding determine his school’s success.
“Whatever resources we get, we will punch above our weight,” he promised.
It’s a hefty goal for the administrator of 50 teachers and 825 students.
“My job is to make sure I’ve got the right teachers in the classroom and I give them every opportunity to perfect their craft,” Freeman explained.
He believes the principal is the highest level of administration to still have a direct influence in students’ lives.
“Policy-makers, bless them, are always trying to come up with schemes to influence, and they’re almost inevitably disappointed by the result,” he observed. “It’s because they stand so far away from the building that they can’t influence what goes on in the classroom. And the classroom is entirely where it happens.”
Freeman, by contrast, makes it a point to get into the classroom. This year, he’s teaching reading and writing. In the past, he’s put his history degree to work teaching U.S. history — the irony of which is not lost on him.
“I teach to remind myself just how hard it is,” he explained. “Teaching isn’t rocket science. It’s more complicated than that.”
Despite the difficulty, teaching was a lure for Freeman because he “couldn’t think of anything more important to do. ... Every time you change the path of someone’s life, that’s a rush.”
To Freeman, an education is “the most valuable possession anyone can have. ... The quality of my life has been entirely different because of the education I received.
“Educated people do not go through their lives like a pinball being battered by the paddles that hit them. They impose a direction on their life. They shape their life, and they shape the conditions of their life.”