Principal returns to her roots in ethics class

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Naugatuck High School Principal Jan Saam teaches an ethics class at the school March 15. She teaches the elective class with English teacher Jill Walsh. –RA ARCHIVE
Naugatuck High School Principal Jan Saam teaches an ethics class at the school March 15. She teaches the elective class with English teacher Jill Walsh. –RA ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — The topic was a heavy one for 7:30 a.m. on a Friday.

In room 107 of the Judd wing of Naugatuck High School, upperclassmen took turns reading an excerpt from “I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced,” which details a Yemeni girl’s forced marriage, abuse and rape at the hands of her husband.

The exercise was part of an ethics class, started and co-taught by Principal Janice Saam, who fit in the first-period class last Friday between handling an emergency in Room 102 and a phone call with the superintendent.

The class, which this semester enrolls 16 juniors and seniors, marks Saam’s return to the classroom after a dozen years out of it.

“Here I am at a high school telling lots of teachers to do things, and I’m not doing them,” Saam said. “How fair is that? … It’s important for me to walk the talk.”

Saam said she could not remember the last time a principal or administrator at the high school doubled as a regular teacher. She teaches the class with English teacher Jill Walsh, who has worked at the school for 13 years.

Few principals teach in Connecticut, said Ev Lyons, co-director of the Connecticut Principals’ Center. In more than 30 years as an administrator, he can only remember two to three principals reserving a block of time for a particular class.

“It’s extremely uncommon,” Lyons said.

In front of two sheets of paper tacked to the blackboard, labeled “virtues” and “vices,” Saam and Walsh delved into the concept of cultural relativism last Friday. They will use the Yemeni girl’s story to ask whether some things are universally wrong, or whether they can be excused as cultural differences.

“I don’t really agree with it, personally,” said junior Matt Merritt of the forced marriage. “I don’t really think there’s any way to validate it.”

Students took turns reading from the excerpt and contributed thoughts on their own cultures.

Saam said nothing in her background prepared her to teach ethics, a one-semester elective that had not been offered at the school before. But she got the idea after reading scholarly journal articles about two years ago that questioned whether the subject was examined enough at the high school level.

At the time, Saam had two children in college, and she was learning that many college students are required to take an ethics course in their field of study, such as law, medicine or business. Saam said most of her ethics students are seniors, and all plan to continue their education after high school.

Saam and Walsh, therefore, have structured the course like a college class, with higher expectations, a defined syllabus and grading largely based on examinations. It also conforms to the state’s new common core standards for English by challenging students to read deeply and write rhetorically.

“It doesn’t do anyone any good to have all this knowledge of ethics if it’s not going to impact your life,” Saam said. “If it hasn’t changed you in any way, shape or form, I haven’t done my job.”

Walsh said she is happy to teach the class with Saam, and that they work well together.

“I’m out of my comfort zone,” Walsh said. “It’s really been a great experience. I’ve learned so much.”

Saam repeatedly says the class is the best 45 minutes of her day. She spent 18 years in borough schools as a fourth grade and special education teacher.

“It’s so good for me to go back to my roots,” Saam said.